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EDITORIAL

The referendum is a bad idea

HISTORY seems to be repeating itself, as Slovakia will most likely experience its second referendum initiated by opposition parties in an effort to bring about early elections in just over three years.
Many of the problems related to the previous referendum have returned to haunt the coalition, which failed to address basic constitutional and legal issues.
The prospect of the referendum succeeding is worrying now, just as it was then. The ultimate question is whether success is more likely today than it was during the previous election term.

HISTORY seems to be repeating itself, as Slovakia will most likely experience its second referendum initiated by opposition parties in an effort to bring about early elections in just over three years.

Many of the problems related to the previous referendum have returned to haunt the coalition, which failed to address basic constitutional and legal issues.

The prospect of the referendum succeeding is worrying now, just as it was then. The ultimate question is whether success is more likely today than it was during the previous election term.

The Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), led by the former authoritarian Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, came up with the idea of calling a referendum in early 2000. Mečiar, whose four-year reign - characterised by the wild looting of state property, undemocratic ruling methods, and the international isolation of the country - ended in 1998, wanted to use the referendum to get back into power.

Robert Fico's Smer party, which was in opposition then, as it is now, was hesitant to take a clear stand on whether early elections should be held or not. At the start of 2000, and throughout the subsequent months, Fico repeatedly said that he saw "no reason for early elections", which, he said, were "the last thing Slovakia needs".

Before the referendum, however, Fico recommended that his sympathizers participate in it, although he did not tell them how to vote. His move was in fact a clear sign of backing the initiative of the HZDS, as the ruling coalition asked its supporters not to participate in the referendum.

A referendum is valid in Slovakia only if more than 50 percent of eligible voters take part, and the coalition was hoping it could ensure that the plebiscite fail through low attendance, as it eventually did. But Fico's decision did represent a threat to that plan.

The stakes in the 2000 referendum were high - the prospects of a return to power by the HZDS troubled both NATO and the EU. At the time, Slovakia's entry into both was still far from certain. And Mečiar's governments were not any better at running domestic affairs than they were at creating a good image for the country abroad.

Today, the risks are not that great. Slovakia's membership in NATO and the EU is a certainty. But the threat of terrible domestic misgovernance, which is what counts when it comes to the everyday lives of the people, is still present.

Early elections would almost certainly bring Fico and his Smer party to power. Smer has recently agreed on a set of measures it plans to undertake if it gets to power. Fico's party wants to get rid of the recently introduced flat tax rate that is much praised by economists and, perhaps more importantly, foreign investors.

The party wants to stop the pension reform launched by the current administration and the privatisation of remaining state property. It would also reverse the healthcare reform, which is just getting underway.

The developments of the 2000 referendum were very much like the current ones - the HZDS decided it wanted elections, launched a petition, and collected a sufficient number of signatures, leaving President Rudolf Schuster no other choice but to call a referendum.

One of the key questions in 2000 was whether it was in line with the constitution to have a referendum, which would shorten the election term. Some legal experts claimed that ending the term of MPs before the constitutional period of four years expires violates their rights guaranteed under the country's fundamental law.

In 2000, President Schuster was unhappy that he could not consult the question to be asked in a referendum with the constitutional court before calling such a referendum. A later amendment to the constitution gave him that power, which he now seems reluctant to use.

Schuster's decision not to prevent the referendum in any way is clearly driven by his ambition to run again for president in this year's elections. Schuster hopes that he can ride the spreading wave of discontent with the cabinet and become the champion of all dissatisfied voters.

The public declaration of support for Schuster by the labour unions, which organised the petition calling for the referendum, is clear evidence of the alliance that exists between pro-referendum forces and the president, who may also hope that Smer will support his presidential candidacy in return for the role he can play in bringing about early parliamentary elections.

In September 2000, some two months before the planned referendum, coalition MPs asked the Constitutional Court to rule whether the referendum question was in line with the constitution.

In an unprecedented decision that many experts deemed absurd, the Constitutional Court refused to take responsibility and rule on the issue, claiming that under the given circumstances it had no right to make a final decision.

Meanwhile, the ruling coalition, which at the time had enough votes to amend the constitution, did not take advantage of the opportunity to put early elections on the list of issues on which a referendum cannot be held.

If there is ever to be any political stability in Slovakia, the early-election-referendum madness needs to be stopped. It will always be relatively easy for an opposition party to collect the 350,000 petition signatures required to oblige the president to call a referendum.

No cabinet can efficiently run a country when it is under constant threat of being recalled by the masses, a threat which contradicts the very nature of parliamentary democracy.

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